NEW CUMBERLAND-Opponents of a proposed countywide smoking ban took their increasingly vocal campaign to the Hancock County Courthouse on Thursday, saying the policy would hurt an already weak economy.
"Save the jobs of the people I care about," Jeffrey Sayre of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort told county commissioners on Thursday. Sayre said he was representing 1,266 employees at Mountaineer.
The racetrack casino, one of four in West Virginia, belongs to the group No2theBan.com, whose members are waging a public relations campaign against the Hancock County Health Department's proposal to ban smoking in all public places.
A person in a chicken suit directs people to the Hancock County Courthouse prior to Thursday’s county commissioners’ meeting, where opponents of a proposed countywide smoking ban spoke out against the policy. The sign reads, “Don’t be a chicken Hancock County Commission!” (Photo by Stephen Huba)
The draft Hancock County Clean Air Regulation would ban smoking in all restaurants, gaming facilities, private clubs, sports arenas, places of employment and concert venues, as well as certain outdoor public places. If the policy is adopted, Hancock County would join 24 other West Virginia counties-out of 55-that have banned smoking in public places and places of employment.
While Hancock County public health officials emphasize the dangers of exposure to secondhand smoke, opponents are framing their argument in terms of the ban's potential economic impact.
Sayre and others addressing commissioners on Thursday said banning smoking would drive people away from Mountaineer, which already is struggling to compete with the growing number of casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Echoing testimony before the West Virginia Lottery Commission earlier this week, Sayre said the proposed ban would result in layoffs at Mountaineer and the loss of $182 million in gaming revenue a year.
"We can't afford to lose one more job," said William Frohnapfel, president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of Brooke-Hancock County.
Of the five casinos in West Virginia, only The Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort, in Cross Lanes near Charleston, prohibit smoking.
Mountaineer permits smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby and trackside, and offers both smoking and non-smoking hotel rooms. Smoking also is permitted in the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room.
Three of the Mountaineer's restaurants-Riverfront Buffet, La Bonne Vie and Big Al's-are completely non-smoking, as is one of the slot gaming rooms.
The No2theBan.com Facebook page issued an "alert" to friends and members on Wednesday, encouraging them to attend Thursday's commissioners' meeting and the upcoming meeting of the Hancock County health board at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Commissioner Dan Greathouse said the ban opponents were permitted to speak at the beginning of the meeting because that is when the public may address commissioners.
Greathouse said it was clear ban opponents were seeking a public forum because commissioners have no say in whether the smoking policy is adopted. Commissioners do, however, appoint the five members of the health board.
Prior to Thursday's meeting, a person in a chicken suit directed people toward the courthouse with a sign that read, "Don't be a chicken Hancock County Commission!" The person in the suit did not identify himself or respond to queries from a newspaper reporter.
Following the public comments, Greathouse proposed the formation of a special committee to work out a compromise solution. The committee, he said, would be made up of two members of the health board, two members of No2theBan.com, Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff and Commissioner Jeff Davis, the county commission's representative to the health board.
"It's obviously a very hot issue," Greathouse said. "I think it makes sense to sit down and try to find some common ground and work together. They're not doing that now."
It is unclear whether the deliberations of such a committee would be subject to the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act.
Huff said she would have to discuss the matter further with the health board. "Two members do not make a quorum," she said. "They would be there as individuals."
Commissioners Davis and Mike Swartzmiller said they agreed with Greathouse's goal of achieving compromise.
"I don't think we'll ever make everyone happy," Davis said. "I'm encouraging the health department not to do anything premature and to continue the dialogue. I always believe that cooler heads prevail."
The issue also was discussed Wednesday by the board of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The draft proposal currently under review by the Hancock County health board would ban smoking in all restaurants, bars, gaming facilities, private clubs, hotels, motels, restaurants, bingo operations, fire department facilities, retail stores, tobacco businesses, concert venues, sports arenas, bowling lanes and other enclosed public places.
It also would ban smoking in public parks, including pavilions, playgrounds, golf courses, fairs, festivals, outdoor service lines, outdoor serving areas of restaurants and other outdoor public places. All places of employment would be covered by the regulation.
Any designated outdoor smoking areas would have to be at least 20 feet from an entrance, exit or ventilation unit, according to the policy. No-smoking signs would have to be posted in all areas covered by the policy.
The regulation would not apply to private residences, including individual apartments or housing units that are part of a multi-unit apartment building, according to the policy.
The regulation gives the health department enforcement powers, including the authority to inspect for compliance, take complaints and file charges. Violation of the regulation would be considered a misdemeanor punishable by a monetary fine.